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Richard Seymour: Where Next for Corbyn and Labour?


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At the Verso blog, Richard Seymour lists the many achievements of Jeremy Corbyn’s momentous parliamentary campaign in the UK, while also identifying where the Labour party needs to become smarter and more organized if it hopes to capitalize on its electoral gains. In particular, Seymour notes that Labour in many ways remains an elitist party, with establishment—and fairly conservative—politicians at the top and weak grassroots ties at the base. Check out an excerpt from Seymour’s comprehensive and important piece below:

But this brings back the whole question of the kind of organisation Labour wants to be. It’s clear that Jeremy Corbyn has, for now, won the argument against his opponents in the party. He has answered the backbench backstabbers convincingly, rebuffed the managerial elite, and won over a lot of worried waverers. Any tendencies toward demoralisation in the membership have been abruptly reversed.

But it remains the case that there is a fairly large, powerful and organised right-wing at the top of the Labour Party that, though they must remain quiet for now, are quite opposed to the idea that the Labour Party should be led from the Left, or that it should be the kind of activist-led, movement-based party that they fear it is becoming. They have demonstrated considerable ruthlessness, to the point of being ruinously self-destructive. It is quite likely that, unable to have their own way, they would find a way to split at the worst possible moment, just as they embarked on a selfish and mindless coup attempt amid a post-Brexit Tory crisis – perhaps some of them would cross the floor in the event that Corbyn won a small majority. The fact that the Labour Party has not been significantly democratised thus far is a major problem in this respect. Changes to the rules, such as mandatory re-selection, would be a democratic step forward and also allow members to replace consistently sabotaging MPs.

Beyond sabotage, there are legitimately other tendencies within Labour, who have pursued a different line from the Corbyn leadership. The Stoke by-election campaign was fought on a Blue Labour nostalgia ticket (Bring Back the Potteries, Make England Great Again) for example. Scottish Labour is moving ever faster into a conservative, nationalist sump, spending all their time berating the SNP rather than championing Labour policies or fighting the Tories. And even if MPs, councillors and local Labour notables are more wary in future of simply insulting the leadership in their campaigning literature, there will continue to be huge differences within the party – perhaps more so the more the party is democratised. That doesn’t mean that Corbyn and his allies can’t fight for, and win, hegemony for a series of left-wing positions within the party, as they have already done. It does mean that Labour is likely to continue to host a truculent right-wing with power and influence in the party’s apparatuses, and a degree of support within the trade union bureaucracy.

It is also important to recognise that there is a sense in which ‘Corbynism’ is quite diverse. There are those who are economically populist, but want to maintain a traditional bipartisanship on security issues and home affairs, or would like to take a ‘tougher’ line on immigration. There are those in the unions, upon whose support Corbyn depends, who will defend the arms industry to the hilt, and those who want some sort of line defending British workers from migrant competition. Corbyn himself is a lifelong socialist, opponent of British militarism and weapons industries, and defender of immigrants and refugees. But he is – as he insists – the leader, not the dictator of his party. And this was reflected in the election campaign which, though in broad balance it was radical and left-wing, was also committed to keeping Trident, staying in NATO, ending ‘free movement’ and raising ten thousand police. Most of this wasn’t particularly prominent in the campaign, until the police commitment became a focus in the last days, to counter May’s demands for more authoritarian state powers. Frankly, the idea that ten thousand more police on the streets would make a bit of difference to the burglary rate, let alone the manifestation of jihadist terror, was a far-fetched concession to the Police Federation, and to Labour’s traditionally pro-police line – even if it was articulated in an anti-austerian language.

Image: Jeremy Corbyn with grime artist JME. Via Verso blog.